Attitude Mind-Body Nature

How to Live a Healthier Life

By some estimates genetics account for 25% of our health outcomes and longevity.  Fortunately, the remaining 75% leaves quite a bit to work with in a quest for quality of life.  The best part is discovering how interesting the quest can be.

One study of men at risk for coronary artery disease found that those who failed to take annual vacations were 30% more likely to die.  Women who vacationed just once every six years were found to be eight times more likely to develop coronary artery disease or have a heart attack than women who vacationed twice a year.  If you were looking for an excuse to take a vacation, this is as good as it gets.  Read more at “Want to Stay Healthy? Go Ahead and Take a Vacation.

In general, marriage is good for your health and your longevity. The known links between stress, depression, social isolation, and heart disease make it easy to appreciate how social connections in a good marriage are an advantage. 

With cancer it’s a different story. There is less evidence that marriage reduces the risk of getting cancer. However, among people who received cancer therapy, marriage was linked to improved survival. The folks at Harvard Health unravel the nuances of how marriage affects health in an analysis of Marriage and Men’s Health.  Of course marriage is only one of many possibilities for expanding healthy social connections. 

Studies of the Amish find they live longer and have lower rates of hospitalization. What are the Amish doing? As you might expect, their lives involve lots of physical activity, less smoking and drinking, and a supportive social environment involving family and community.

Even skin cancer rates are lower for the Amish despite often working outdoors.  How they dress makes a difference.  Usually they wear wide-brimmed hats, long sleeves, etc. The Amish also have less asthma which seems to support the “hygiene hypothesis” which theorizes that relatively germ-free homes we live in reduce the opportunities to develop immunities in the early years of development.  So where’s the fun in being Amish?  Well, you could enjoy a carefree walk outdoors, breathe the fresh air and enjoy the wonder of life. Invite a friend to join you and of course use sun protection.   If you don’t notice at least one robin or yellowhammer then let it serve as a reminder to next time leave your worries on the doorstep.

Experiencing a feeling of being in the presence of something vast and greater than ourselves is another positive step toward good  health.  For some these feelings of awe are found in reverential respect mixed with wonder.  According to Dacher Keltner, there are important evolutionary reasons for why it’s good for our minds and bodies to experience awe. 

Perhaps you recall being overcome by awe?  It might have been while viewing a magnificent natural scene like the Grand Canyon, listening to a symphony or beholding art. For some it’s part of a walk in the woods or gazing at the night sky.  For many the experience is found in their spiritual experiences of meditation and prayer.  Read more at “Why Do We Feel Awe?” and  “Ways To Live An Awesome Life.”

Feeling that we have a purpose in life is an amazing health benefit.  It can improve cardiovascular health and by some estimates add 7 years to our life.  What matters is having a purpose that’s important to you.  Your purpose could be raising your children, ministering to less fortunate, seeking spiritual understanding, being a great spouse, excelling at a hobby, etc.  

One study estimated that although babysitting can be stressful, regularly helping care for your grandchildren can reduce your risk of dying by a third. It seems almost any sense of purpose that helps us stay mentally and physically active will do the trick.  If you wake up looking forward to the day’s challenges then you’re on the right track.  If not, then perhaps your search for purpose needs a boost. It’s a worthy quest even if absolute answers remain elusive.  There can be joy in believing you have found your purpose and in the quest for purpose. In the quest, numerous self help books tackle life’s mysteries.  Viktor Frankl’s book,”Man’s Search for Meaning” has inspired many with insights into why having a purpose and acting on it really matters.

Attending religious services offers another path to discovering purpose and awe.   If it’s something you have been thinking about then ask to join a friend at their services, or just drop by a nearby house of worship. Most have an open door policy and will gladly share their experience.  There may be a hidden bonus.  Studies have shown religious involvement is associated with an increased life expectancy of between four and 14 years. 

The miracle of nature is happening along the greenways and walkways.  Have a favorite place to enjoy nature’s miracles?  I’d love to hear about it. 

For me, a Spring walk is an awe filled adventure.  Each plant and creature a miracle.

Perhaps you need more awe.  As always, you’re welcome to join me for a morning walk around the lakes.                

Nancy Neighbors, MD

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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